Monday, April 27, 2015

On my shelfie

You may have noticed that I recently updated my blog's background image of a shelf full of romance novels. Both the new one and the old version are indeed photos of my own romance bookshelf. Today I’m going to talk a bit about where the first one came from, why I changed it, and why I’m still dissatisfied.

In 2013, I participated in a Facebook thread with a group of scholars (mostly medievalists like me) who were sharing shelfies, the bookshelf play on a selfie photograph. While most of the posted photos contained literary and critical tomes, I decided to share my romance shelf, bringing my personal reading into a quasi-professional domain. 

Original shelfie, 2013
At the time, it felt like a brave gesture, a way of identifying myself as a romance reader to colleagues in academia who may hold a derogatory view of the genre. But I got nothing but positive feedback from my fellow scholars, who expressed enjoyment at seeing a different sort of shelf. So when I started designing this blog a year ago, it was a natural choice to incorporate the image as a testament to my own reading experience. And I very much like the personal touch of having a photo of my own collection accompanying my posts on the genre.

A key drawback of this original photo, however, is that because I tended to loosely group my romances by author, the shelfie gave a lot of space to a few authors and did not reflect the variety of romances I read.

So I decided last month to see whether I could update my shelfie to make it more representative of my engagement with romance. While moving over the summer, I had scrapped the sorting-by-author system. I thought that with a little massaging I could include a broader array of novels. The results were not entirely satisfactory.

As I rearranged my books, I was able to bring in a wider range of subgenres, displaying more paranormal and science fiction romance and a few more contemporaries. A greater number of authors are now featured. And the temporal span reaches from the early ’80s to this year. But when I evaluate the end product against my contact with the genre, I still see massive lacunae.[1]

Updated shelfie, 2015
The main culprit, beyond the usual complaints of too many books and not enough space to keep them all, is my switch over the past five years to reading romance predominantly on e-readers. During that time I’ve gone on major reading jags and discovered plenty of authors that can be found nowhere on my physical shelf. Two years ago I tore through Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Chicago Stars series. But I don’t own a single hardcopy. I’ve likewise read nearly all of Sherry Thomas’s historical novels. Just about every new adult, queer, ménage, and erotic romance I’ve read is stored on my Nook or Kindle.

I couldn’t buy hardcopies of some of these works, particularly the newer ones, even if I tried. Anna Cowan’s Untamed, for instance, is only available in the U.S. in e-book format, so she’s not in my shelfie. The same thing goes for Alyssa Cole’s Radio Silence and Elle Kennedy’s The Deal, both of which I read last month.[2] So there are substantial obstacles to remedying the situation fully.

This is troubling to me because a casual visitor to my blog could understandably interpret the shelfie as an endorsement of some romances at the expense of others. And I am particularly concerned that certain subgenres as well as diverse authors are still underrepresented.
As I continue to blog and need to consult various texts often I may go back to buying more hardcopies. My bookshelf will not transform overnight, though, so it may be some time before I post another shelfie update. Meanwhile, as a partial corrective, I provide on the right-hand side of the blog a list of the books I read each month. It is my hope that this list can complement my shelfie, which says more about where my reading has been than where it is now.

[1]I want to make clear that I am only comparing my collection to my personal reading history, not to some representative sample of the genre. 
[2]This is not a reproach. E-publishing is connecting me with these books just fine, and a reader’s ability to display a given book on the shelf has got to be dead last among the priorities of any author or publisher weighing print publication.